Foster Parents: "A lighthouse to guide children safely home"
March 5, 2018
Lisa Thornton of Kalamazoo has a special place in her heart and her home for traumatized kids. During the past six years, she's taken in 13 children, from newborns to 10-year-olds, who've suffered abuse, neglect, parental abandonment, and family upheaval of all sorts. They've stayed for as short as one month, as long as 22 months.
Lisa is a foster parent. And she encourages others to join her.
"I like to say that I'm a port in a storm, a lighthouse to guide children safely home. That little bit of help can make a huge difference to them."
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 687,000 children were in foster care nationwide in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That's about average for the ten years prior.
In Michigan, nearly 13,000 children are currently in foster care. On any given day, about 300 children are looking for a foster family to take them in.
Some of them are right here in our community. In Kalamazoo County, an average of 562 children were in foster care each month in 2017.
Foster Care through Family & Children Services
"We have around 200 children placed with approximately 100 of our own foster homes and many homes that are actually licensed through other agencies," says Krista Ploski, foster care licensing supervisor for Family & Children Services. "We'd love to have more foster parents. There is a real need."
Krista and her colleagues field four to five requests daily from county Departments of Health & Human Services and other private agencies throughout Michigan looking to place children in foster homes.
With offices in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, Family & Children Services is one of several agencies in this area that help recruit, license, and train foster parents, place children in their homes, and work with them to ensure a safe, nurturing experience for all.
"My Family & Children Services foster care team does an excellent job," says Lisa, who lives in Kalamazoo. "You can feel their commitment, that it's more than a job for them. I know I can call them anytime for support. They are knowledgeable, supportive, and very good listeners."
The agency has five licensing specialists and a recruiter, plus four foster care teams, each with a supervisor and four or five workers who work directly with foster parents, biological parents, and foster children. Each foster family receives a monthly home visit. Homes with special needs children receive extra visits.
Meanwhile, parent coaches work with biological parents on their parenting skills and caseworkers supervise meetings between biological parents and children, all with an eye to reunite the family.
"The amount of support we offer to our foster families makes us unique," Krista says. "For example, we have a 24-hour on-call line that foster parents can call if they have an urgent need. Few agencies offer this."
The Family Center at the agency is also a unique offering, says Krista. Opened in November 2016, the Family Center provides colorful and family-friendly spaces, inside and outside, including a picnic and playground area.
"It's really a warm and welcoming atmosphere where foster parents, biological parents, and the children can meet, play, talk about what's working well, what isn't working, and next steps to succeed," she says. "It's a fun and inviting space that helps puts everyone at ease."
What Makes a Good Foster Parent
Keeping the biological parents in the picture is key, Krista says. "The goal is always to reunite children with their biological families or help them transition to an adoptive family. Until that time, foster parents like Lisa are there for the children."
Some foster parents end up adopting children in their care. Lisa, now 50, adopted her younger son, now four, after serving as his foster mother. She also has an 18-year-old son.
"I wish I'd started this earlier," she said with a laugh. "Not because I think I'd have had more energy. I just wish I'd started sooner so I could have helped more kids."
She says all of her foster children have either gone home to their biological parents or have gone to loving adoptive homes. Those who have not been able to return to their biological homes have been able to maintain a relationship with a parent.
"I'm proud of that accomplishment."
What makes a good foster parent? According to Krista, you must be 18 or older, have a stable income (but you don't need to be wealthy), be able to commit to challenges, have a strong desire to make a difference in children's lives, and be dedicated to a child's reunification with biological parents. Retirees and single or married adults are welcome.
"Patience, flexibility, and a heart for children also helps," she says.
The State of Michigan provides a twice monthly stipend to foster parents, based on the age and needs of the child. Foster parents also receive a semi-annual clothing allowance. Children in foster care are eligible for Medicaid, which pays for medical, dental, and mental-health care. Working foster parents may also qualify for reimbursement of day care costs.
Lisa's advice for foster parents? "Keep it simple and remember that kids just want to be kids. Think of the things you do with your kids, or you did when you were a kid. Sitting around the dinner table together, talking as a family is big. Getting their school pictures might seem like a small thing, but many kids have never had that. It makes them feel normal and special at the same time."
The hardest part? "Saying goodbye," she says with a sigh. "You often form strong attachments, even with kids who only stay for a month or two."
Lisa knows this all too well. She provided care for a newborn for nearly a year, visiting her in the hospital every day for weeks, even helping with her medical care, before bringing her home. She strongly considered adoption. The baby had older brothers already in an adoptive family, however, and all agreed the children should stay together.
"She was full of grace and understanding," Krista says about Lisa's effort to help the year-old girl transition to the adoptive family. "She never faltered from what was best for the baby, and continues to stay close to the adoptive family, even taking on the role of aunt to the girl and her brothers."
Lisa stays in touch with many of her foster kids and their families. They exchange photos and updates on the children's accomplishments and milestones via Facebook, phone calls, and visits.
"I want prospective foster parents to know that making a difference in a child's life is very rewarding. And when it comes right down to it, helping out a kid is not that difficult."
Learn more about becoming a foster parent at our website: http://fcsource.org/foster-care-start.html. For answers to your questions or to schedule an orientation, please call (269) 501-0834. Contact us by e-mail at email@example.com. Please provide your name, email address, phone number. We will respond to you within 48 hours.
The State of Michigan also has online resources for potential foster parents: http://www.michigan.gov/mdhhs/0,5885,7-339-73971_7117---,00.html